On New Religious Movements & Jehovah's Witnesses

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Source credit: Ioneelev8
Confession: I used to peruse many self-help books. How to speed read, mind-map, write poetry and manage interpersonal conflicts. How to meditate, find the center of peace in the universe within and pray to the unseen forces in the natural world. On hindsight, many of these authors, including Eckhart Tolle, are Americans associated with marginal religions. Have I been unknowingly exposed to New Religious Movements? These people are not organised groups; they are simply searching for fulfillment, trying to find their meanings in existence. And their quests to seek their raison d’être resonate, with many books hitting bestselling lists. Their laissez-faire organization leads to the diffusion – almost unnoticeable to laypeople – of their “religious” tenets.

Even prior to this module, I’m drawn towards their idea of putting together a religion for oneself. Picking and choosing theology from various religions can assist one in getting a most comfortable fit of beliefs. Perhaps this is a reflection of my thirst for freedom from the rules and regulations of institutionalized religions? What is the basis of this thirst, anyway?

The contemporary world is a supermarket, hyperlinked with virtual aisles, and even religions can be picked, chosen and assembled at will. To do well by a self-constructed bricolage of religious beliefs predicates on choosing them well in the first place. But do we always know what beliefs are good for us? Can we trust ourselves to choose wisely?

On a separate note, the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Singapore is enlightening. Because this religion forbids their followers to handle firearms, some of them have to serve their mandatory national service as cooks in the detention barracks. When religion clashes with state policies, and every faction has competing demands, how do we resolve it?

In Sheffield, England, a Jehovah’s Witness once stopped me outside a bargain shop. He is British but can speak Chinese fluently. Upon discovering that I’m a Singaporean, he suggested that Singapore learn from Hong Kong, where they have successfully campaigned for male believers to serve their national service in hospitals instead. But Singapore is a secular state, I had exclaimed, if we are to make special concessions for one religious group, what about the rest? Would they claim privileges for themselves too? We had a vibrant discussion, standing in the middle of the street, with shoppers thronging around us, carrying their groceries, children and religious worldviews.

The State, by definition, has to exercise control, but to what extent and through what methods? By establishing boundaries for religious communication and propagation, the State is a force that prevents the endless multiplication of religions. It is, essentially, a force that is directed by other human beings. On what basis should we trust or contest its decisions? Can we, as the British person has suggested, temper our hard-line stance on certain policies with empathy?

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What Is A Religion?

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Source credit: Mr Bello Blog
What exactly is a religion? According to Turner, a religion refers to those processes and institutions that render the social world intelligible, and which bind individuals authoritatively into the social order. In less elegant terms, it is a type of intangible glue that sticks different people together.

The word ‘religion’ is an umbrella term for various practices and beliefs. There are many ways to employ this term. What is African witchcraft to incredulous American researchers may simply be a way of life to the Africans themselves. There is a need to be wary of how we employ this term relatively, so that we establish common grounds for discussion and do not set ourselves up for futile cross-talking. There is also a need to be cautious of the historically Western connotations that the vocabulary in the sociological study of religions carry.

Now, religious issues have always been a taboo topic that people creep about on this multi-everything island set in the sea. Singapore has often been described as a multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious city. It is, however, less of a melting pot of harmonious flavours than a mosaic where different pieces fit uncomfortably together. In general, mutual understanding between various religions is lacking.

Due to the historical friction between religious groups and the geographical situation of a predominantly Chinese country in a mostly Malay region, the government is worried that any racial and/or religious dispute may spark off an incendiary unrest. Hence, it is careful to appear unbiased, going to the extent that it allocates public holidays evenly between the different religious fractions.

It is interesting to discover more about this under-discussed topic. After all, we’re all caught in the making of history and it’d be insightful to study how religious forces will shape the contours of our human society in the 21st century.

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Wang Gungwu, in his Secular Values in Asia and the West, explains that the scholarly community generally accepts that being modern is a condition closely linked with being secular.

But what exactly does being secular mean? This word often refers to the separation of the Church and State, thus allowing room for the civil society and materialist-driven culture to flourish. Outside the Western world, it is most commonly used while referring to the political model established in postcolonial countries. The narrow definitions of this word preclude a more nuanced understanding of why modern secular values have not fared as well in some parts of the world and why different kinds of modernity may stem from different roots.

It has also been interesting to discuss the historical roots of capitalism and communism. Capital secularism is the “product of centuries of worldly struggle in search of wealth and power, and also of the search for a happier world at all levels of state and society”. This governance model divests power from military, religious and political authorities. Individuals gain more autonomy to direct their lives – but to what effects?

Instead of worshipping in religious sites, has the contemporary society found something else to revere? Have money, and its attendant prestige, become a contemporary religion?

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The Cyber Charms of Our Government Bodies

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This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

There are times when we sigh, trying to pick apart the convoluted writings of government bodies, to unravel the meanings they hold for us. The CPF statements, for example, and the newspaper quotes about the latest policy changes. Sometimes, there is a need to read such information repeatedly just to understand their literal meanings. We may have to spend a lot more time to decode their implications for us. Bertha Hanson, a seasoned ex-journalist, has written a list of words that bureaucrats tend to bandy about.

But there are also heartening instances of our government bodies trying to shed their stodgy images while communicating their intentions. The online media has been a sphere for the government and the governed to converse with each other.

Some civil service institutes have been more successful than others, sharing information succinctly and with grace. Take, for example, the press releases by the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority, the body responsible for preventing illegal entries of people and cargo into Singapore as well as issuing travel passes and documents.

Their work, while essential in safeguarding Singapore, may sound boring to the general public. (How to communicate a factual incident on an illegal entry in a sufficiently interesting manner to capture the attention of a hyperactive online audience?)  Despite this challenge, the authority has come up with soundbites of information that convey important messages with clarity, brevity and wit:
Caught In The Web of Love
Prologue: True love…seriously?
It was May 2012 when a married Singaporean man was attracted to a female Chinese national and the couple decided to develop their illicit relationship further.  Unfortunately, as with many heart-rending love stories, they did not live happily forever as both were married, but not to each other.
Angry Birds: The ICA Version
Known for their great vocals, mata putehs (also known as Oriental White-eye) have been living under the attention of many bird lovers. However, when trapped and forced to be silent, these birds got angry and made their stand.
Do Not ‘Harbour’ Ill(Egal) Thoughts
In the month of June, three men were convicted of harbouring immigration offenders (IOs) and were each sentenced to no less than six months of imprisonment as a result. The trio had committed an offence under Section 57(1)(d) of the Immigration Act (Cap 133).  To those who think that they will be able to pull off the same stunt without getting caught, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) advises them not to harbour such ill thoughts.
The Immigration & Checkpoints Authority isn't alone in this attempt to reach out to the public. The Facebook page of the Ministry of Education is a board of parenting tips, interesting trivia and quotes, along with official updates about government policies.

MOE1MOE3MOE2

The efforts by these government bodies to engage with internet-savvy Singaporeans can be very creative, and really commendable.

Often, we tend to look to the wittiness of overseas cultures - such as these fake signs in London trains - and wonder if Singapore is too staid, too safe and predictable for the same flowers of creativity to bloom here.

Yet one visiting professor from America once mentioned to me that Singaporeans are really humorous people - always ready with puns and deadpan jokes - just that they don't seem to find themselves humorous. Perhaps it's because we measure ourselves against foreign standards that we think we're more boring than we actually are?

The online dispersal of information by some government bodies - including the Ministry of Education and the Immigration & Checkpoint Authority - points the way forth. Other public institutions can certainly take a leaf - or Facebook update - from their books.

So yes, kudos to these government boards for loosening up, for signalling that Singapore can be funny - even for those in official capacities - and for conveying information in such catchy, readily understandable manners!

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Life in a Multi-generational Poly-religious Family

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To attempt to change someone’s opinion is never an easy task. It can be infinitely more challenging to try altering the religious worldviews of an angst-ridden teenager. Such was the difficulty that my elder brother – I call him “大哥” – had faced about a decade ago.

Back then, we were both secondary school students. My elder brother was a born-again Christian, fervent with the belief that the world was facing an unprecedented string of crises, what with natural disasters, sociopolitical turmoil and multiple charlatans claiming to be the reincarnates of Jesus. He wanted his entire family of non-believers – my parents, my two younger brothers and I – to join him for the Sunday service and share his religious beliefs. My dad was too busy trying to earn enough to support his four children and housewife to even think about seeking spiritual fulfillment.

I was, at that time, a nerd consumed with the academic studies of mathematics and physical sciences. Show me proof that Jesus exists, I exclaimed, let me see and I shall believe you. What I wanted was non-biased – preferably tangible – sources explicitly proving that (1) Jesus existed, (2) is benevolent and (3) will walk the earth again. Naturally, my brother was unable to offer evidence beyond the words compiled in the Bible.

It was then that I realised a clash in religious persuasions can cause friction in all other aspects of daily living, like a viral infection spreading through a relationship. Historically, people had fought wars to propagate their religious worldviews and assume ideological dominance. Marx has once described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. To him, religion is “the opiate of the masses". Religious beliefs offer an anchor to make sense of the befuddling world and a balm to soothe existential angst. These worldviews can be so addictive that people are willing to go to extreme extents to defend them, be it by shedding blood, committing suicide bombings or leveling World Trade Center towers.

In light of the atrocities that had been carried out due to religious fervour, the conflicts between my elder brother and I are much more benign. Our lived experiences are milder microcosms of the friction that may occur when two parties quibble over ways to view the world. Our relationship had not always been like this though.

When we were much younger, still fresh-faced kids in primary school, our Christian 2nd aunt brought us to a church. After singing hymns and attending Bible studies – it was nice hearing moralistic stories – we would run alongside other children, observing the birds caged in an aviary and stroking the silky fur of house rabbits. Till now, I can remember a few bars of Christian hymns.

My grandma, a staunch believer in a mishmash of folk religions, was livid when she found out that we were brought to the church. What would bury me when I’m gone, she demanded in the Teochew dialect, is it filial of you all to go to the church? The usually serene lady was uncharacteristically worked up and very determined that her grandchildren would not convert. Christianity is a threat to her tightly-held beliefs, especially since it forbids ancestral worship. Had we converted, there would be no one to offer food, fruits and incense to our ancestors and no one to bury her according to the traditional rites when she pass away.

To placate my grandma, my 2nd aunt stopped sneaking my elder brother and I to the Sunday school. When we grew older, my elder brother went with his secondary school friends to church for worshiping God while I stayed at home to revere my textbooks. Gradually, our religious paths forked.

At this point, he was adamant about converting his immediate family members – including me – to Christians. There was a particularly memorable moment of him trying to proselytise, this time over dinner. He listed the virtues of Christianity; having a Saviour to provide divine guidance; a spot guaranteed in the heavens above; a code of ethical conduct to abide by. He even mentioned that most rich people are Christians – perhaps a passing reference to the prosperity gospels? – and asked me to verify this information via the internet.

My response was not flattering and could be construed as being woefully inappropriate.

“Where are your manners?” He spat out.

“Gone with the wind.”

“Come, let’s go outside and talk.” He sounded serious and angry.

“I don’t want to go out with you.” I was defiant and, to be honest, quite scared of him.

The resultant quarrel was so petty that it behooves us to discard the bulk of it and only focus our attention on one verbal attack I had made. In a scathing manner, I accused my elder brother of tearing the family apart by (a) going to the church on Sundays, thus (b) depriving the family of time to bond. This melodramatic remark hurt for it was partially true: our family had indeed stopped going out together on our hitherto regular Sunday outings ever since my elder brother began to go to the church.

A few weeks later, after multiple skirmishes on the same religious topic, my elder brother and I sat down in the living room. We were both tired from quarrelling, worn out from the continual battle of wits and will, fed up with the deliberate cross-talking. Why do you want us to be Christians, I asked. Because you are my family and I don’t want you to go to hell, he answered. There was silence, poignant with unsaid meanings, before we called a truce. He said something I couldn’t forget: “one day, if you become a Christian, I know that you’ll be a good Christian for you defend your beliefs most strongly.”

It isn’t easy for members of a multi-religious family to reconcile their different values, worldviews and feelings. All these were shaped by years of experiences and no one can readily walk away from something that have been honed by personal history and been grounding them for so long. Perhaps this accounts for why certain religions are able to propagate for centuries; it’s because they have tenets that are not only incredibly difficult for their believers to turn away from but also compels them to proactively spread these religions.

Tensions invariably arise when one religious worldview comes into contact with another. In a multi-generational poly-religious family, where members feel obliged to share – perhaps even impose – their religious paradigms on another, there is potential script material for family dramas.

These days, my elder brother and I are more united by a common reluctance to keep subsisting on the vegetarian dinners that my 3rd aunt – she’s a Buddhist – cooks for the entire family. We do not share her religious obligation to consistently eat vegetables, fungi and mock meat for dinners. However, we aren’t the chefs and so, keep such views to ourselves. Through the memories that our religious disputes left behind, we have grown to appreciate that mutual understanding – or at least tolerance – is needed to maintain the harmony of our family. Under the same roof, various religious inclinations – Christianity, Buddhism, atheism and agnosticism – rest, at times peacefully and at others, with greater unease.

We're same same, but different.
Source credit: Sketchuptexture

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'Tis The Season To Be Paiseh

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The Lunar New Year: A season for merry-making, food-gorging and asking embarrassing questions.
Source credit: Calvin Teo.
The Chinese New Year is a season for wearing bright red clothes and asking questions that can cause faces to flame. Concerned relatives have been asking about my age, whether I'm dating and when I plan to be married. One even offered to set up a blind date for me.

I tried lying to a few that I had just broken up with a non-existent girlfriend and was nursing an unspeakable pain. It wasn't very sensitive to ask me such questions, I exclaimed. Naturally, no one believed in the lies I spun.

It may be a good idea to escape to a neighbouring country next year - perhaps the sunny islands in Indonesia? - to avoid the ceaseless stream of questions about when I plan to contribute to the nation by reproducing my genetic copies.

On an unrelated note, my 5th and 7th aunts were chatting with me about the lucrative nature of being a private tutor when I committed a faux pas.

I was sharing a story about tutoring the daughter from a wealthy family. They are rich, very much so, with a seaside condominium, a Sentosa bungalow and two shophouses. Paintings that cost around 400,000 USD hang against their living room walls.

Despite all their money, they are a unhappy family. The mum would often complain about her womanising husband to me, her daughter's private tutor. The poor girl would be so intensely embarrassed, to have the family's troubles aired in front of a stranger.

Once, there was a screaming marathon between the husband and wife, with the latter threatening divorce. The tuition proceeded with my student and I pretending that we couldn't hear the ruckus one wall away.

Wealth, cliched as it may sound, doesn't promise a carefree life enfolded in the warmth of loved ones.

My two aunts were rather quiet. It was then that I realised it was a poor context to share that particular experience.

One aunt was the second wife. She had, in all fairness, been a mistress and caused a divorce herself.

Another has a lived-in mistress sharing the household, living with her husband and her, now.

The Chinese New Year festivities are opportunities for family members to meet, catch up and cause one another endless embarrassment. We really should be more tactful about what we say.

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